On alternate truths.

On alternate truths.

Sometimes the alternatives are jarring – you look and count a certain number, another person proffers a radically different amount.

Surely one of you is mistaken.

In the United States, there’s a rift between those who overestimate certain values (size of inauguration crowds, number of crimes committed by immigrants, votes cast by non-citizens, rates of economic growth) and their fellows.

Henri_Tajfel.jpgIn the 1960s and 70s, psychologist Henri Tajfel designed experiments because he was curious: how is genocide possible?  What could sap people’s empathy so severely that they’d murder their thinking, perceiving, communicating neighbors?

Tajfel began with a seemingly irrelevant classification.  In the outside world, people have different concentrations of epidermal melanin, they worship different deities, they ascribe to different political philosophies.  But rather than investigate the gulf separating U.S. Democrats from Republicans, Tajfel recruited a homogeneous set of teenage schoolboys to participate in an experiment.

Screen Shot 2018-09-19 at 2.38.26 PMOne by one, the kids were shown a bunch of dots on a screen and asked to guess how many dots were there.  Entirely at random, the kids were told they’d consistently overestimated or underestimated the number of dots.  The numbers each kid guessed were not used for this classification.

Then the kids participated in a pretty standard psychology experiment – they had various amounts of money to split between other study subjects.  In each case, the kids were told that one of the recipients would be a fellow over-estimator (not themselves, though), and the other recipient would be an under-estimator.

An intuitive sense of “us vs. them” would pit study subjects against the researchers – kids should assign payoffs to siphon as much money as possible away from the university.  When every option has an equivalent total payoff, you might expect a fair distribution between the two recipients.  After all, the categorization was totally random, and the kids never had a chance to meet the other people in either their own or the other group.

Instead, over-estimators favored other over-estimators, even at the cost of lowering the total payout that the kids would receive from the researchers.  Oops.

We should expect our current over-estimators to favor each other irrationally, too.  These groups aren’t even randomly assigned.  And many of the alternate truths must seem reasonable.  Who among us doesn’t buy in to the occasional fiction?

For instance, there’s the idea of “free market capitalism.”  This is fictitious.  In the absence of a governing body that threatens violence against those who flaunt the rules, there can’t be a market.

Sometimes anarchists argue that you could have community members enforce cultural norms – but that is a government (albeit a more capricious one, since the “cultural norms” might not be written down and shared policing introduces a wide range of interpretations).  Sometimes libertarians argue that a government should only enforce property rights, but they purposefully misunderstand what property rights consist of.

garden-gardening-growth-2259If you paint a picture, then I spray it with a hose, you won’t have a picture anymore.  If you have a farm, then I buy the adjacent property and start dumping salt on my land, you won’t have a farm anymore.  I don’t have the physically take things out of your hands to eliminate their value.

If you own a house, then I buy the adjacent property and build a concentrated animal feeding operation, the value of your house will plummet.  You won’t have fresh air to breathe.

Or maybe I want to pump fracking chemicals into your aquifer.  You turn on your tap and poison spills out.

We have rules for which of these actions are acceptable and which are not.  The justifications are capricious and arbitrary – honestly, they have to be.  The world is complex, and there’s no pithy summary that solves all our quandaries.  Right to swing my arm, your nose, pffft, nonsense.  Why’d you put your nose there, anyway?

And our government enforces those rules.  The market is not free.  Corporations that denounce government intervention (e.g. dairy-industry-opposing tariffs, carbon tax, etc.) seek government interventions (now the dairy industry hopes that producers of soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk, etc., will be forced to rename their products).

But this probably doesn’t feel like hypocrisy.  We humans are good at believing in alternate truths.

On Syria, and the complexity of causality.

On Syria, and the complexity of causality.

Approximately one thousand years ago, the Syrian poet Abu Al-Ala Al-Ma’arri wrote:

 

God help us, we have sold our souls, all that was best,

To an enterprise in the hands of the Receiver.

We’ve no dividends, or rights, for the price we paid.

Yet should our wills choose between this corrupt business

And a paradise to come, rest assured they’d want

 

The world we have now.

 

birds(This was translated by Abdullah Al-Udhari and George Wightman for Birds through a Ceiling of Alabaster, a collection of ancient poetry from the Middle East.)

Many of our choices, moment to moment, are saddling us with a rotten deal.  We can often see how to make the world better.  “A paradise to come” might be heaven, but it could also be a more perfect world here on Earth.

If we were starting from scratch, it would be easy.

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While wrapping packages at Pages to Prisoners recently, I told another volunteer about my essay on the link between misogyny and the plow.  Sexual dimorphism in Homo sapiens is minor enough that, if we were like other primate species, we shouldn’t have much gender inequality.  Many hunter-gatherer societies that survived until modern times were relatively egalitarian.  And women have been miserably oppressed in cultures that adopted the plow, a farming tool that magnifies the differences between human physiques.

But I had to admit, afterward, that, like all explanations that purport a single cause for something so complicated, my claim was wrong.  There seems to be a correlation between the introduction of the plow and myth-making that led to worlds like our own – but there were surely many other factors.

SphcowThe world is complex.  In physics and economics, the goal is often to propose a simplified model that captures something of the world – the difference between otherwise equivalent cultures that either adopted plowing or did not, the difference between otherwise equivalent societies where GDP growth is larger than the rate of return of investments, or smaller – and hope that most of the omitted detail really was expendable.

Which brings us to Syria.

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syria_tmo_2011210Like many environmentalists, I’ve commented on the link between the horrors in Syria and climate change.  Human activities – primarily in nations that experienced a huge leap in living standards during the industrial revolution – have released long-trapped carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  This has caused a small increase in global temperatures, but can cause a large change in the climate of any particular region of the planet.  Areas that once supported many people become suddenly less habitable.

Like Syria.  The country plunged into drought, which led to widespread food insecurity, which made the violence worse.

That much seems true, but it’s certainly not the whole truth.  The violence was already there.

Al_Assad_familyWhile Syria was ruled by the Assads, there were constant human rights abuses.  Their punishment for a 19-year-old student who joined the Syrian Communist Party and expressed dissatisfaction with his country’s political regime?  The student was imprisoned for sixteen years.

After his release, the now middle-aged Yassin al-Haj Saleh still disliked his government.  Somehow those sixteen years did not convince him of the errors in his youthful ways.  He married a fellow political activist and continued to advocate for change.

Unfortunately, activism like theirs contributed to Syria’s descent into nightmare.  You should read Lindsey Hilsum’s “War of All Against All,” in which she reviews Saleh’s recent essay collection alongside three other books about the tragedy.

Saleh wrote that:

International_Mine_Action_Center_in_Syria_(Aleppo)_12It never occurred to us that there could be a more dangerous threat to their lives than the regime’s bombs.  What bestows a particularly tragic status on this abduction is that it was an outcome of our own struggle, and that we ourselves had made this horrible incident possible.

This sentiment is painfully elaborated by Hilsum:

The sentence bears rereading: so terrible is the situation in Syria that one of the region’s most long-standing and fervent critics, a man who has dedicated his whole life to fighting the Assads, father and son, is forced to wonder if it would have been better not to rebel at all.  The author’s head may have remained clear while his heart was breaking, but the carefully modulated prose of these essays does not provide the whole story.  How can we understand the Syrian revolution unless … we consider in … depth how it feels to blame yourself for your wife’s disappearance and probable death?

The writer’s personal tragedy reveals him as an authentic voice trying to understand how the genuine, progressive revolt he supported went so horribly wrong.

The regime was awful, imprisoning and torturing children for years at a time.  Student-led protests eventually led to a retreat by the regime, but then quasi-religious fanatics claimed vast swaths of the country.  They kept the old regime’s torture and arbitrary imprisonment, and added public execution.  U.S. intervention arrived late and couldn’t root out the deeply-infiltrated jihadists.

Hilsum writes that “An older woman we met might have been forgiven for cursing both sides: ISIS had expropriated her house, she said, and then the Americans had bombed it.

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While reading Hilsum’s piece, I felt a twinge of guilt.  Yes, climate change exacerbated the tragedy, but the chaos in Syria was already a tragedy.  It’s heartlessly trivializing to imply that there could be a simple explanation for such a complex, horrible thing.  I was wrong to blithely write what I did.

Plows don’t oppress women, people did.  (Which sounds unfortunately reminiscent of “guns don’t kill people,” because guns do, they potentiate far more killing than would be possible without them.)

Climate change didn’t murder millions of Syrians.  But it made an awful situation worse.